My mom read somewhere that snakes hate the smell of onions, so she’s been laying out peels on the railing to ward them off from the mourning dove’s nest on the porch. She was worried, she said, that the bird was starting to get bored of sitting on the nest for so long, guarding her eggs. I told her I think that’s just what birds do. I took a last glance at the dove as we headed out to the train station.
We arrived at the Amtrak station in downtown Raleigh a bit early and decided to take a quick ride through the city to waste some time. The station is in a newly renovated district where abandoned factories have been converted to shops and restaurants for hipsters and young professionals: a high-end thrift store selling Eames chairs and vintage jackets, a Japanese tea house and sake bar and a massive food hall serving all varieties of street cuisine from local vendors. We spotted a new high-rise that we’d never noticed before, a glassy behemoth with a “wework” logo stamped on one glistening side. The skyline had a new complexity, with so many more ridges than we’d remembered.
Mom and I circled back to the station and she offered a cheery smile and waved as I rummaged through the backseat for my stuff. “I’m gonna miss you,” she told me. “It was nice having you home.” Then I met up with my boyfriend Ryan for the nine-hour ride back to New York City, where we both go to school. We waddled toward the platform down a long concrete corridor, our luggage somehow stuffed with so much more than we’d arrived with a few months before. Once we boarded, the conductor soon came in over the loudspeaker and said something about the engine not working so well in hot weather—we’d be traveling 30% slower than usual because of the relentless, sweltering Southern heat.
We like to take the train to New York instead of flying. There’s no security line or luggage restrictions or flight jitters. It’s simple: you find a nice seat and curl up with a good book or a movie, or gaze contemplatively out the window, or just talk. The trip offers a comprehensive tour of the East coast’s major cities, too, passing through Richmond, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia before arriving at New York’s Penn Station. Admittedly, though, this train ride was tinged with a bit more anxiety than usual, due to the pandemic. Most people wore masks, but there were the inevitable outliers who for whatever reason insisted on walking down the aisle without one. Ryan and I quivered and reapplied our hand sanitizer upon occasionally hearing thunderous coughs erupt from several passengers seated behind us.
We snacked on Kit-Kats and elote-flavored corn chips that Ryan got me for my birthday a few days before, sliding them up under our masks so that we could chew without spreading our germs around. By now, my disposable mask was beginning to disintegrate, the unraveling fibers tickling my nose. Meanwhile, the stretchy ear bands were somehow scrunching my glasses against my face.
The train wound through Virginia, past quaint small towns, expansive lakes and vast fields. In D.C. there was a longer break, as the conductors switched out the train’s engine for a more efficient one. There wouldn’t be much warning before departure, the Amtrak staff warned over the loudspeaker. If you should be left behind, “just remember you left the train; the train didn’t leave you.”
Ryan had packed us a delicious, if challenging to eat, lunch of fried egg, cheese and tomato sandwiches on bagels with chile-spiced mangoes and an orzo pasta salad on the side. We found a quiet corner and scarfed down our sandwiches as I stole nervous looks down the platform.
Back on the train, a man with a scraggly, dark beard and round belly who sat across the aisle from us was getting drunker and drunker, hammering down cans of Shock Top and bottles of Stella and occasionally sipping from a flask. He even scored a shot of rum from a woman for helping her retrieve luggage from a high rack. I wouldn’t have minded him having his fun, but he became increasingly obnoxious over the course of the ride. At first, he’d been diligent about wearing his mask and keeping distance, but under the swirl of alcohol he threw caution to the winds, digging through his luggage, which was scattered all over the train. At one point, a woman noticed something in the aisle and asked him if he’d dropped something. “Oh, that’s just my mask,” he shrugged. “It’s pretty useless, anyway.”
When we finally arrived at Penn Station we bickered a little because I wanted to take an alternative route to the subway. I have a horrible sense of direction and am also self-conscious about it—an anxiety that sometimes manifests as me insisting on a path different from Ryan’s preference, and then inevitably getting us lost. This time, I sagely relented early enough that we didn’t end up too far off course. My overstuffed bags and I managed to get stuck in the subway turnstile, as groaning locals shuffled past me. With Ryan taking one of my bags to lighten the load, I squeezed through, and we hopped on a nearly empty Brooklyn-bound M train. It took us a while to recognize that the train had emerged from the tunnel to go over the Williamsburg bridge. As we’d switched trains, night had fallen.
We were almost there, dragging our feet and wiping away sweat, when we heard a few loud bangs in a nearby intersection. Ryan saw some flashes, and then two cars squealed down the road. I’d initially dismissed the noise as fireworks; I’d never see anything violent happen around where I live. But a flurry of cops who descended on the intersection suggested it might not have been fireworks.
We entered the dark apartment, escaping from the sticky summer heat and swallowing glasses of water, still debating what we’d seen. I thumbed through a new magazine that came in the mail, peeking out our front door once or twice to make sure no one got hurt in whatever scuffle had taken place. It seemed a little quieter than usual, besides the fireworks (this time we could see them clearly) that popped and fizzled in some far-off block.